Behind the stay-at-home Covid restrictions, the mental health of thousands is threatened. Cries for help multiply. To virus induced threats, including isolation if schools and universities stay closed, migrants must also deal with the trauma of past events plus the stigma of not always feeling accepted in a new country. Like Achol Arop.
Resilience necessary to face racism and confusion about where I belong is one of my (Achol’s) concerns as a young South Sudanese migrant.
My co-author Stuart comments, Achol’s beginnings were harrowing. To current pressures to identify and build a new life, she writes poetry, beginning with recall of macabre events in the South Sudanese civil war, where her father ‘balanced baskets of ammunition, and his village became ashes.’
‘The atrocities he’d seen shackled his voice,
wind carried the names of fallen soldiers,
the dead were buried by vultures.’
As the youngest of six children, but against my mother’s wishes, my father gave me away. In consequence I became, ‘A tree without roots, without my mother’s guidance.’ In the poem ‘I Was Robbed’,
‘I denied the clicks of my mother tongue,
nor danced to the songs my grandmother once sung.
I was robbed of embracing my grandfather’s spiritual protection,
instead given a bible and a path of misdirection.’
At that point, Achol reflects on South Sudan as,
‘A land where children danced to the sound of missiles,
artillery shells their first choice of toys
…where love is found at the bottom of rivers
as fish feast on the corpse of thy neighbour and enemy.’
I was cared for in my family home, then as a young girl spirited to Australia to live through teenage years with a Sudanese family in the western suburbs where I attended a Sydney high school.
As Stuart read my poetry, he says what he thinks.
‘Achol displays remarkable courage and uses poetic scribblings as a psychological safety valve. As though humility is crucial to her art, as though there are bigger identity conundrums than self-respect as a poet, she denies being one. Yet the talent is obvious and merits space.’
In insights about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, I (Achol) am concerned that bureaucratic considerations trounce interest in a migrant’s mental and physical health. In ‘I Am A Migrant’, I have described,
‘A displaced detainee whose legality
of entrance into the country is rather
profoundly more important than emotional and physical stability.’
Not only in response to the Afghan tragedy, news headlines described restriction-imposed pains of loneliness and increased calls to Lifeline. Even migrants granted citizenship must battle for recognition and equanimity. In ‘Soldier’s Dance’
‘Cannibalistic is what I have become, not for human blood
but I yearn and crave the slightest human connection.’
In efforts to detect any individual’s vulnerability to psychological stress and social isolation, and in searching for peace of body and mind, outward appearances can be deceiving. I (Achol) might be looking in vain for ‘Peace’ yet others may perceive me as being at ease.
‘To others she epitomized beauty and stability,
beneath that was a life of isolation.’
As if the burdens of separation, of not belonging, and the recollections of war are insufficiently heavy, Achol carries memories of exploitation in the past and racism today. Nevertheless, her resilience is effervescent and bubbles to the surface. As a potential mentor for others, she treats these events as experiences to be worn, pains endured as part of growing up.
In Sudan, the casual but allegedly friendly man who came offering friendship was dubbed an uncle, until seen otherwise. As a young girl, ‘I cried and cried but he never did any less.’ As a young adult she handles that recollection,
‘Gone are the days I’d break my neck
dancing to the sound of your voice,’
now I beat my ear drums in the hope
all sound of you will become a distant memory.‘
Humour is a means of resilience, as in speculating how booze could be a prop for the alcoholic, an observation made during Achol’s casual employment as a bar maid in an RSL club. I (Achol) recognised the irony in alcohol being a deceptive lover, full of promises seldom realised.
‘She offered me passionate love
at the bottomless ocean of despair
…my favourite bottle of bourbon
sheepishly smiled and whispered, ‘Good Morning.’
Mental health requires self-respect nurtured by connection to family and place, but for migrants such connections may be severed, or remain as mountains to climb.
As though clutching for straws of reassurance and belonging, Achol did return to South Sudan and discovered,
‘Home is where children make wishes
to shoot bullets instead of stars
where vultures are more nourished than citizens.’
and even though
‘Home was reduced to rocks and gravel,
where mum was buried without a shovel’
yet when I returned on that visit, I fell in love with my country and people, and somehow the best part
was not worrying about fitting in.
My co-author can have the last word.
This South Sudanese Australian’s creativity deserves to be known and encouraged. In trying times, Achol’s poetry crafts hope from sadness, humour from loss. In every stanza, courage shows and resilience flows.